April 14, 2002 -- "Changing Lanes" is a rare treat, a disturbing, but thoughtful tale of anger, revenge and morality. It is tough and gritty, but it also has some heart and humanity. It is slickly made, with excellent production values, quality acting and an intelligent script.
The story has two men involved in a minor traffic accident causing a feud which escalates to violence in a period of hours. Ben Affleck of "Pearl Harbor" stars as Gavin Banek, yuppie lawyer, and Samuel L. Jackson of "Shaft" as Doyle Gibson, a recovering alcoholic trying to get his life back together. Both are on their way to court when the accident happens, and both are in a hurry. Gibson wants Banek's insurance information for the accident, but Banek speeds away, leaving him with a blank check to pay for the damages. Gibson, whose car is disabled, is late for his court appointment. Because he is late, he loses custody of his children. Banek arrives in court only to discover a file including important legal documents has fallen out of his briefcase at the accident scene. Gibson finds the file, but refuses to give it back, seeking vengeance for Banek leaving him in the lurch and ruining his life.
Desperate, Banek tries to force Gibson to give the file back by paying a hacker to tamper with Gibson's bank records. Gibson retaliates by threatening to destroy the legal papers in the file. The counter attacks escalate. The changes in Gibson's bank records causes him to be denied a loan application for a house he wanted to buy. He needed the house in order to help persuade his ex-wife from moving across the country with their children. The legal papers that Gibson has are vital to Banek, without them, he and his law firm could be sued for millions. With the papers, Banek's law firm has control of a multi-million dollar trust fund. Without the papers, control of the lucrative fund goes back to the family of a multimillionaire who established the fund. The stakes are high for both men.
When dealing with each other, the two men continually choose the most confrontational, destructive course of action. Each of them is doing what they think they need to do in their own self interest. All that was needed to head off a crisis is a little consideration, a little compassion, but both men are too full of self-interest and self-pity to see that course. Eventually, like floundering alcoholics, the two men have to hit rock bottom to see that their actions are self-defeating. Gibson gets some help from his Alcoholics-Anonymous sponsor (played by William Hurt). He tells Gibson that his anger is causing a chaotic situation. He Says, "Everything decent is held together by a covenant. You broke the contract." Gibson realizes that he can't blame Banek for all of his problems. Banek has his own revelation when he discovers what he thought he wanted most in the world was not what he wanted at all. Race relations, an underlying issue in the movie, is nicely dealt with when Gibson confronts a couple of advertizing writers about a Tiger Woods TV advertisement.
Ordinarily, when a film portrays a series of escalating violent and vengeful acts, the result is pretty predictable and morally simple. This film has a much more thoughtful, complex approach. As a result, it isn't nearly as predictable as one might imagine watching the trailer. The script, by Chap Taylor and Michael Tolkin ("Deep Impact"), is very well-written. The character motivations are more natural and believable than most films I've seen in the last couple of years except for "In the Bedroom." First-time director Roger Michell does an outstanding job. Affleck and Jackson give strong performances, ably supported by Amanda Peet, who plays Cynthia, Banek's wife, and Sydney Pollack of "Random Hearts," who plays Stephen Delano, the head of Banek's law firm and Cynthia's father. Also good is Banek's friend Michelle (played by Toni Collette of "Shaft"). The production design by Kristi Zea ("Silence of the Lambs") is also very effective with the shabby backgrounds of Gibson's world and the sleek modern interiors of Banek's upscale world. This film rates a B+.
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